Sweetie, You Won't Believe It (2020)

As soon as I heard there was a horror film from Kazakhstan I had to see it.  Not because of any of the Borat silliness, but because it is a country I've actually been to.  Well, it's a country now, but it wasn't at the time I was there.  It was still part of the U.S.S.R., and I was with a group of high school students that were among the first to do a student exchange.  For whatever reason they decided a bunch of kids from Arizona would like to visit Almaty (at the time Alma-Ata), the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and for a time after independence before the new capital was built in the middle of nowhere. 

There is a lot of middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan.  Lots of steppe land, some rivers and forests and a whole lot of desert.  There are sizable cities - Almaty has a couple million people - but there are also lots of small villages and farming communities.  Of course, the way I remember it is a far cry from the way it is now.  Just seeing this movie begin in a Best Buy-style electronics store was a bit of a shock, since I remember 1950s-era department stores with broken escalators and few useful goods on the shelf.  The country still has its share of problems, including the usual ex-dictator that made sure things were named after him, but I was thinking of how Kazakhstan has come a long way.

That is seen in the film as well.  It's not a washed-out, greasy movie that looks like it was filmed on stock left over from a snuff film - I will never understand why a lot of post-Soviet cinema has to look like that - but well-directed by Yernar Nurgaliyev and well-shot by Azamat Dulatov.  In many ways it portrays the mainstream urban culture, from the very beginning where newscasters are warning people to never go into the country, as isolated and scared of the rest of what is out there.  When this is the basis for the humor it becomes rather universal, and recalls rural horror films of the U.S., which is where Nurgaliyev was obviously getting inspiration. 

Dastan (Daniyar Alshinov) is frustrated with the nagging from his pregnant wife Zhanna (Asel Kaliyeva) and decides to join his friends Murat (Yerlan Primbetov) and Arman (Azamat Marklenov) on a fishing trip.  Never mind that none of them have ever been fishing or shown an interest, but Dastan is that desperate.  When they start getting near their destination, however, they begin to have second thoughts after stopping at a strange gas station run by a deranged father and daughter.

While the guys are headed out fishing another group, consisting of Kuka (Almat Sakatov) and his three brothers Petok (Rustem Zhanyanenov), Kissyk (Yerkebulan Daiyrov) and Buzau (Bekaris Akhetov) have hogtied another man (Kilishbek Kassymbekov) who owes them money.  Unfortunately, Petok's incompetence with a gun leads to him accidentally committing murder as Dastan and his friends float by on a nearby river.  Things are further complicated when an unkillable one-eyed man (Dulyga Akmolda), upset about Petok killing his dog, decides to take revenge on the brothers, with them thinking that it is Dastan and his friends hunting them.  It becomes a race against time to escape the trip alive and get back to Zhanna, who has gone into labor while they were away. 

Although it is a comedy sprinkled with elements from some of Nurgaliyev's favorite horror films, throughout the adventures Dastan and his buddies have is the underlying reality that times move on.  It is mentioned early on that they are always trying to get him to come out and do things but, as a married man, his priorities are different.  In fact, the only reason they are all still friends is because they were in high school.  They have all grown older and into different people, but don't want to admit it.  At the end, though, they realize through their ordeal that the changes aren't a bad thing, and gain respect for each other for who they are rather than some childhood memory.  I just wish that Zhanna wasn't such a shrill, one-note character. 

That's a pretty heavy subject for what largely comes across as a goofy bro comedy, but it is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.  The humor isn't afraid to get wicked, but it doesn't really cross too many lines - there is one scene where Dastan is held hostage, and I thought it was going to get real uncomfortable, but it never took it that far.  When it does get to the climax there is a well-filmed, exciting battle with the one-eyed man, as well as some truly tense parts with Murat and Arman trapped in the killer's cabin.  There are also some great practical gore effects courtesy of Juliya Levitskaya and Eldar Shibanov, both summoning their inner Savini. 

This is definitely a fun film with a whole lot of different elements, as well as some portions where the characters learn some good life lessons.  It also reminds me that I wouldn't mind going back there again sometime, particularly Almaty and Shymkent, to see how things have changed and actually meet and talk with people now that I'm a bit more willing to appreciate things as an adult.  I am happy to see a film like this come from there as well, and also find out that they have a homegrown cinema that is emerging.  It's a big country with a diverse population, and a beautiful place at that.  I'm hoping that this is a sign that we'll be hearing more positive things in the future.

Sweetie, You Won't Believe It (2020)
Time: 84 minutes
Starring: Daniyar Alshinov, Azamat Marklenov, Yerlan Primbetov, Rustem Zhanyanenov, Dulyga Akmolda
Director: Yernar Nurgaliyev



Popular posts from this blog

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)